Bishop of Clogher’s Christmas Sermon
Bishop of Clogher’s Christmas Sermon

The familiar stories of Christmas can be read in different ways and it is important that they should be. I say this because Christmas is something which happens and, by happening, invites a response. Invitation and response weave their way through the various pictures which make up the story. Together they give extra depth and reach to the individual pictures of Christmas which unfold before us: the decree of Caesar Augustus; the little town of Bethlehem; the manger; the angels and the shepherds. All too often, we associate these pictures with Christmas, and then promptly forget about them until next year. We associate Christmas itself with sparkling stars; with swirling snow; with the sweet smell of turkey and ham. Charming and ‘traditional’ though such pictures are, we need to take away more than this, if this story of salvation, which revolves around God’s coming to earth in human form, is to sustain us in the life which lies ahead of us, with all its unpredictability and its challenges, in the year ahead.

The first invitation of which we hear is that which went out from Emperor Augustus, requiring that all the world be registered. Routinely a Census would give an accurate record of who lived where, the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, at a particular time, and would facilitate the working of any future administration. The important side of this registration, as St Luke recounts it, is that everyone was to go to his home town. Joseph of Nazareth had to go to Bethlehem of Judaea because that was the dwelling-place of his tribe, the Tribe of David. Such an official invitation draws out a dutiful response from Joseph. He does what is asked of him. He brings along with him Mary who gives birth to their firstborn child in Bethlehem. So baby Jesus is himself registered in Bethlehem as a member of the tribe of David. The movement of history is clearly shown as a movement of invitation and response. This is important because we have become conditioned to see history as little more than a series of disasters. Jesus at his birth is placed in the little town of Bethlehem. Events bigger and wider than a hillside town, outside Jerusalem, in a quarrelsome Province of the Roman Empire, combine to give us the child of hope and the bearer of salvation. Local government has its part to play in the work and wonder of God.

Nearby were shepherds living in the fields, guarding their sheep, 24/7, as we might say. No matter how adorable lambs are, shepherds cannot afford to live in a world of romance. Sheep wander and wolves attack. Sheep run awkwardly and are easily picked off and savaged. It can all happen - just like that. Why, do you think, would an angel of the Lord appear to shepherds in a field? Shepherds are very much about what Bethlehem is about. David, a shepherd boy in his youth, learned his craft in Bethlehem long before he became king in Jerusalem. The shepherds make the connection between the glorious, Godly event of the birth of Jesus Christ with something entirely earthly, businesslike and everyday – shepherds watching over their flocks, day and night. But we must also reckon with the element of surprize – the quite extraordinary invitation and response embedded in what happens in the fields: the shepherds leave their precious sheep untended and say to one another: Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. The invitation brings them to the heart of heavenly glory. They may be men of the world. They may be shrewd and streetwise. No harm! God made known to these shepherds the truth about God. They are invited to come and see; they respond by leaving what matters to them – their sheep and their livelihood. They are, in one sense, the very first disciples.

In both these pictures of Christmas we have seen invitation followed by response. The most routine of everyday things are swept up into the love of God - the work of the civil service, the worries of farming, the world of business. God calls to glory people who do everyday things every day. Behind the invitation to come to Bethlehem to be registered and behind the invitation to come to meet God’s Son lies the conversation between a young woman named Mary and an angel named Gabriel. The angel invited the young woman: Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you …and Mary responded: I am the Lord’s servant, may it be as you have said. The way is paved for both Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth and for the shepherds of Bethlehem to respond to the invitation precisely because Mary herself has already responded to the invitation of God without fear. Three pictures; three invitations; three responses. All three build up a picture of delight and joy in the presence of God, whatever and wherever the circumstances.

But, what of us today? In Northern Ireland we live still – ten years after The Peace – in a climate of stagnation. While politicians do deals and trade on the good name of those who have suffered most, they shrink back from the invitation to trust to the future and to entrust that future to those who will shape it creatively. There is a new generation of un-noticed people who are not looking over their shoulders to past conflicts, old wounds, tired manifestoes to ensure re-election. These people await eagerly and patiently the response of: mature devolution, social commitment, fresh thinking. Meanwhile, sectarianism has never gone away. Meanwhile, Belfast remains the hate capital of Europe. Meanwhile, education, healthcare and infrastructure – schools, hospitals, roads to you and me – remain problems which continue to sit in ministerial in-trays. It seems far away from the invitation and response which marked out the first Christmas. It too had its administrative needs and its economic crisis but it overcame fear. It too had political hurricanes and human sadness. But it knew joy and gladness. I take you back to the words Gabriel spoke to Mary: Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you… The politics of fear and fragmentation still sell at too good a price in Northern Ireland. With an economy in dire straits, emigration is becoming an even more attractive option than ever. And once again, ugly violence raises its head in our streets. Faith in God, faith in one another and faith in ourselves are greatly needed as everyday virtues in a climate of fear. Bethlehem’s child invites us to joy and gladness.

People of good will and of good deeds are to be cherished. People who issue invitations and who respond to them are to be treasured for of such is the Kingdom of God. People who do everyday things with a good attitude and who do extraordinary things for other people, simply because that is the way they do things, are to be honoured. People who rejoice in what God has given them and share this with others are to be celebrated. God came to earth to hold together the everyday and the unexpected, to invite us to respond. So, let us go now to Bethlehem.

Bishop Michael Jackson